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Peter Menzies: Even more Big Government is not the solution to keeping kids from porn

Commentary

By the time you have finished reading this, Pierre Poilievre and the Conservative Party of Canada may have figured out that making Canadians the freest people on earth doesn’t involve the state assigning hall monitors to govern the internet.

Because prior to this week’s launch of the government’s Online Harms Act, there was considerable evidence to suggest the Tories don’t understand the consequences of internet regulation any better than their hapless opponents in government.

The Conservatives, as we speak, are backers of Independent Senator Julie Miville-Dechene’s private member’s Bill S-210. Its intent, like so many pieces of legislation, is virtuous, as it is trying to protect children from access to online pornography. But the road to regulatory hell is paved with good intentions, and the legislation is so clumsily constructed as to pose significant threats to privacy and free expression.

Experts such as David Fraser, a Halifax privacy lawyer and law school lecturer, describe it as a “clear and present danger to a free and open internet.”

The internet advocacy group Openmedia says “If S-210 is passed without major fixes, Canadians could see most internet services require us to provide a government-issued ID to log on, have our faces repeatedly scanned and stored in leaky databases to simply live our online lives.”

Similar critiques have been leveled by legal experts such as the University of Calgary’s Emily Laidlaw and the University of Ottawa’s Michael Geist, the latter of whom called it the “most dangerous Canadian internet law you’ve never heard of.”

And while we were pondering how Conservative support for the most privacy-invading, freedom of expression-suppressing online legislation yet was going to help any of us “take back control” of our lives, Poilievre declared a future Conservative government would ensure people less than 18 years of age would not be able to access pornography online.

That was quickly followed by a caveat-laced statement issued by Poilievre spokesman Sebastian Skamski, who was clarifying that Conservatives are opposed to imposing a digital ID or other measures that would limit adults’ online freedom—even though they are currently supporting, along with the NDP and Bloc, a bill that would do just that.

Whew.

So, just when you thought it was the Liberals who were—rightfully—going to be the ones wearing the crown of internet freedom crusher come the next election, the Conservatives looked like they wanted to share the title. And they appeared to be doing so by enthusiastically joining the “let’s expand the power of the state over the most democratizing, freedom-friendly invention since the printing press” crowd.

Hopefully, the response to the Online Harms Act will be more nuanced.

Children should not be exposed to pornography. Numerous studies have shown it has a deleterious impact, including impairment of the ability to form rewarding intimate relationships and the objectification of women. No doubt the isolation of the pandemic left many young men more capable of forming a rewarding relationship with their laptop than with the girl next door.

With that in mind, parents should be equipped with every tool possible to help them protect their children. And, currently, they can restrict access on the devices they own to ensure their kids aren’t exposed to porn. Good enough? 

Maybe not. Children, particularly as teenagers, figure out ways to get around barriers just like they figure out ways to share some contraband vodka in the park on a Saturday night. But that doesn’t mean we don’t recognize that there are certain things in this world for which access needs to be restricted to grownups. Or that we give up trying to keep them on course.

Nor does it mean we need agents of the state putting the nation at risk of data breaches (two words here: Ashley. Madison.) and identity theft by having to flash credit cards, driver licenses, and, inevitably, facial and voice recognition IDs to watch movies like 9 ½ Weeks on the internet.

So, Conservatives, here’s some advice on how to do the right thing the right way.

Leave legal content on the internet alone. By all means, ensure the Criminal Code is enforced, but do not, under any circumstances, put some puffed-up public servant in charge of patrolling the online world. The state has no business in the WiFi of the nation.

Second, empower parents and families with the equipment they need to control their household’s internet access as they see fit and work with the people who really understand technology to do so.

For instance, if your bank or credit card company can send you an alert when there is unusual activity on your account, it seems reasonable to expect one’s Internet Service Provider could be of similar assistance. I am not an engineer and haven’t checked with one, but it is important for policy makers to search for solutions of this nature.

So, at least to illustrate a point, would it not make perfectly sensible policy to ensure that if, when it comes to internet service, families were given the option of choosing to be alerted any time a device connected via their account accesses an adults-only website. Sites of that nature could be, by regulation, watermarked in the same fashion as those embedded to identify images created by generative AI. Would that not serve the same purpose? Achieve the same goal as the legislation the Conservatives are currently backing? Would such a solution not respect privacy, individual liberty, and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in ways Bill S-210 does not?

If the Conservatives genuinely want to give us back control of our lives and make us the freest people on earth, they could start by stepping back from their recent alliance with Big Government solutions and instead find ways to help individuals take control of their lives by managing what comes into their homes. 

The Weekly Wrap: Poilievre proves he’s more than a live-and-let-live libertarian

Commentary

This week‘s edition of The Hub’s Weekly Wrap reflects on three of the past week’s biggest stories, including Pierre Poilievre’s support for age verification to access pornography, the Conservatives’ youth movement, and the American Right’s continued descent into a cult of personality.

Debates over access to porn dominate Ottawa

Pornography was at the centre of Canadian politics this week. Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre surprised some political observers by signaling support for legislation that would require age verification for Canadians to access online porn. 

Although he didn’t provide much detail about how such a law might ultimately be implemented, Poilievre’s endorsement in principle represents a notable divergence from the libertarian politics with which he’s become associated. It reflects a more nuanced worldview than we’ve typically seen from him, and is an implicit recognition of Stephen Harper’s axiom that “Conservatives have to be more than modern liberals in a hurry.” 

What Harper was conveying in his influential 2003 Civitas address, and what Poilievre’s surprise announcement on online pornography signals, is that in today’s political context it isn’t sufficient for conservatives to merely confront progressivism’s economic agenda. They must also be prepared to challenge the excesses of its sociocultural agenda too. As Harper put it: 

On a wide range of public-policy questions, including foreign affairs and defence, criminal justice and corrections, family and childcare, and healthcare and social services, social values are increasingly the really big issues.

Canadian conservatism, in other words, must strive for a synthesis between liberal ideals of individual autonomy and freedom and traditional understandings of social norms and values. Jason Kenney, Stephen Harper, and others have referred to this intellectual and political tradition as “ordered liberty.” 

The subject of online pornography for minors is arguably a prime one for conservatives’ conception of order to trump their commitment to freedom. The negative effects of ubiquitous porn in general and for young people in particular are quite overwhelming. Evidence tells us that the harms extend from individuals to social relationships and ultimately society as a whole. There’s certainly a conceptual case therefore that individual freedoms related to accessing pornography—particularly for minors—ought to be curtailed in the name of the social good. 

The details of course matter. There will be an onus on Poilievre at some point to outline how the goal of age verification would be effectuated. A current Senate bill that’s supposed to be taken up in the House of Commons is vague on how it should be implemented and who is ultimately responsible for overseeing it. But even if these are complex questions, they’re presumably not intractable. The British government is currently working on them as part of the coming into force of its own legislation. There are doubtless lessons to learn from its imperfect experience

But for now, Poilievre’s announcement is as important for its symbolism as its substance. It signals that he’s not merely a live-and-let-live libertarian. His worldview is instead more textured than his rhetoric sometimes reveals. It makes one wonder in what other instances we may see him diverge from a strict libertarian position in pursuit of the “balance” that Harper envisioned more than 20 years ago.

In the meantime, it’s worth acknowledging the key role that Hub contributor Ginny Roth has played in building a first-principles and policy-based case in favour of the position that Poilievre articulated this week. She’s been a consistent voice at The Hub for what she describes as a “conservative feminism”, including an August 2023 column that advanced the case for “age-gating” online pornography, and deserves a lot of credit for contributing to the intellectual conditions that led to Poilievre’s surprising announcement. It’s a valuable reminder of the power of ideas in politics. 

The Millennial influence on the Conservative Party is only growing

This week, the Canadian Club Toronto hosted a much-anticipated panel discussion with Millennial Conservative MPs Adam Chambers, Melissa Lantsman, and Shuvaloy Majumdar as well as prospective candidate Sabrina Maddeaux. The sold-out event was ably moderated by Hub contributor Ginny Roth. 

Although its general theme was the state of Canadian Conservative politics, the conversation’s underlying idea was the generational change represented by the participants themselves. They personify the growing influence of Millennial Conservatives (and conservatives) in our politics. It’s fitting that the event was held on the same day that Statistics Canada reported that Millennials have overtaken Baby Boomers as the country’s large demographic group. 

Canadian Conservatism (and conservatism) is increasingly a microcosm of this demographic shift in the broader society. Yet, as I’ve previously written, its major generational transformation has gone largely underreported by the mainstream media. The political consequences are nevertheless bound to be significant. 

The Parliament of Canada’s website makes it somewhat challenging to conduct an apples-to-apples comparison of the age distribution of the different parliamentary caucuses. But a cursory review of the Conservative shadow cabinet and the Trudeau government’s own cabinet (as well as the caucuses overall) is suggestive that the Conservatives are on balance younger than the Liberals. Pierre Poilievre for instance is roughly eight years younger than Justin Trudeau. Chambers and Lantsman (who are both members of the Conservative shadow cabinet) are between 15 and 17 years younger than their Liberal counterparts. 

These generational differences were on display at the Canadian Club event. The discussion covered a set of issues that wouldn’t have necessarily animated previous gatherings of conservatives. One example: There was a unique focus on fertility rates, family formation, and the role of government policy to improve the conditions for families to flourish. 

It’s not that previous generations of Conservatives (and conservatives) were indifferent to these questions. But rather their attention and focus were mostly dedicated to the issues that had been part of their own formative political experiences. As a result, the centre of gravity for a lot of Conservative (and conservative) Baby Boomers was the economic stagnation and fiscal crisis of the 1980s and 1990s. They came of age litigating debates about taxes, spending, and the size of government in the economy. 

While these issues still matter to Millennial Conservatives (and conservatives), they’ve since been superseded by a new set of concerns that sit at the nexus of the so-called “success sequence.” The promise of educational returns, marriage, home ownership, and family formation has been fundamentally disrupted in the modern era and, in turn, led to a reorientation of conservative priorities.

Consider the following: a previous study by the Cardus Institute has found that more than half of Canadians in working-class jobs are now over-credentialized. Mortgage eligibility in the City of Toronto is increasingly limited to those with household incomes in the top ten percent. The average age of first-time mothers has increased to 31.6 years old. And research from last year tells us that Canadian women are having fewer children than they tell pollsters they want. 

These unique challenges facing younger Canadians require a voice and, as this week’s Canadian Club event demonstrates, it’s Conservatives (and conservatives) who are disproportionately giving them expression. And so far they’re being rewarded for it. The Conservative Party now outperforms the Liberals with the 18-39 age demographic which makes it an outlier among centre-right parties across the Anglosphere. 

It prompts the question: will the next election be the first in which Millennials assert their new generational power over our politics? 

Former President Donald Trump speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference Feb. 28, 2021, in Orlando, Fla. John Raoux/AP Photo.
Trump’s complete and total takeover of American conservatism

American conservatives are gathered in Washington this week for the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. CPAC, which was first launched in 1974 with a keynote speech by future President Ronald Reagan, is one of the highest-profile events on the conservative calendar. Thousands of grassroots attendees come each year to hear speeches from leading right-wing activists and politicians. 

CPAC’s evolution over the past several years is a metaphor for broader trends in American conservatism. It’s a long way from Reagan’s inaugural address to this year’s Reagan dinner speaker Vivek Ramaswamy. 

I attended CPAC a few times in the early 2000s. My friends and I went to hear leading political figures like George W. Bush and Paul Ryan as well as intellectuals like Charles Krauthammer and George Will. 

The conference was a bit edgy and quirky. Ron Paul regularly won the presidential straw poll, which of course was unrepresentative of his broader political support. But the overall vibe was solidly mainstream.

In the Trump years, though, CPAC has become an expression of the former president’s takeover of American conservatism. The ideas and values that used to underpin the conference (often characterized on bumper stickers or t-shirts by phrases like “faith, freedom, and free enterprise”) have been subordinated to accommodate Trump’s ideological incoherence. A former head of the American Conservative Union, which organizes and hosts the conference, recently said that “I don’t recognize it anymore. It all gravitates around Donald Trump.”

The list of this year’s speakers—including Lara Trump, Steve Bannon, and My Pillow founder Mike Lindell—reinforces his point. The conference, which used to be a platform for intra-debate among conservatives, is now carefully configured around Trump’s ego and political impulses. It’s become a cult of personality. The former president who headlines the program on Saturday has seemingly reshaped the movement that Reagan used to personify.

It’s interesting to think about the direction of causality here. Did Trump channel or change American conservatism? If it’s the former, what’s behind the change between the CPACs that I attended and this year’s conference? Is it mostly explained by a counter-radicalization to excesses on the Left or is something else going on? If it’s the latter, are people primarily motivated by affective polarization or have they actually changed their views to align them with Trump? However one answers these questions, there’s no doubt that something has changed—and I’d argue it’s for the worse.

Late last year when I interviewed George Will for Hub Dialogues I told him that we had previously met at CPAC in 2007. He replied: “that’s before it went crazy.”